Is American Science in Decline?

The popular narrative of US intellectual decay proves wide of the mark, James Wilsdon writes

September 6, 2012

The US National Academies set great store by their reputation for independent, objective and non-partisan policy advice. Each year, they produce as many as 300 sober, carefully weighted and technical reports at the request of a wide array of federal and state government agencies. Occasionally, though, the mask of objectivity slips and they move into advocacy mode on behalf of investment in science. The tone of their reports shifts, and the normal dough of evidence and analysis is leavened with hype and political rhetoric.

The best-known recent example was the 2005 report Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (a National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine co-production). It used a combination of facts, figures and flag-waving to paint an alarming picture of US science on the brink of a precipitous slide, brought about by the rise of knowledge-hungry competitors in China and India. This view has proved influential both among scientists, who enjoy nothing more than harking back to a mythical golden era of bounteous funding and endless technological possibility, and politicians, keen to fold all sorts of wider concerns about education, the economy and national security into a narrative of scientific decline. These preoccupations are well illustrated by Rising above the Gathering Storm, which spawned more than two dozen bills in the US Congress within a year of its release. It also helped to frame the context within which Barack Obama was able to promise in 2008 to "restore science to its rightful place", and subsequently to push research spending to 2.9 per cent of gross domestic product in 2009, higher even than at the peak of the Apollo space programme.

But is US science really on its uppers? This is the starting point for Yu Xie and Alexandra Killewald's book, which is published just in time to inform the US presidential election in November. Their laudable aim is to move beyond "black-and-white generalizations or decline" towards "a more nuanced...accurate assessment".

And so, over the course of eight chapters, Xie and Killewald take a forensic look at who does science in the US today, where they work and why. Their approach is thorough and systematic, and draws together a variety of available data, as well as offering some fresh analysis.

This is a short book, with 140 pages of main text followed by another 50 pages of data and appendices. It is also a useful one, providing a welcome corrective to the wailing and gnashing of teeth that too often accompanies this debate. But I'm sorry to say that it is not terribly interesting.

In their conclusion, Xie and Killewald ask whether there are distinctive cultural reasons why US science remains so strong. They do not explore this terrain in any depth, and their overall answer to the question posed in the title is "a qualified no". Countering the declinists, they conclude that the US' scientific labour force has grown in size in recent decades, public support remains high, and US universities are producing ever-larger quantities of science graduates. There are a few changes within the system: notably, women and immigrants now form a larger proportion of the scientific workforce. And there are some reasons for concern: in particular, the relative stagnation of scientists' salaries relative to other graduate professions (such as medicine and law).

So far, so unsurprising. The world's largest science funder remains strong. "Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead."

Is American Science in Decline?

By Yu Xie and Alexandra A. Killewald

Harvard University Press

240pp, £33.95

ISBN 9780674052420

Published 28 June 2012

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